What losing Kristi Toliver means for the Washington Mystics

Toliver’s departure is big, but the Mystics are still contenders

On Monday, Kristi Toliver delivered one of the first surprises of WNBA free agency when she signed a contract with the Los Angeles Sparks. The veteran guard had played for Los Angeles from 2010 through 2016 but spent the past three seasons with the Washington Mystics, winning WNBA championships with both franchises in 2016 and 2019. Last season, she was named a WNBA All-Star for the third time in her career and averaged 13.0 points and 5.9 assists.

The Mystics had expected Toliver to re-sign with the team throughout the offseason. The day after they won the championship, general manager and head coach Mike Thibault told me, “This group is going to stay together.” On January 30, he said on the Winsidr WNBA Show, “We feel pretty positive where we are” with the Mystics’ main free agents, including Toliver.

However, Toliver told The Washington Post’s Ava Wallace that her decision ultimately came down to “the business of basketball.” Although the terms of her contract with the Sparks are not yet known, Thibault filled in some of the blanks. “We were offering basically the same contract that she was offered somewhere else,” he told Wallace. “The difference ended up being in the last year on the contract, the third year.”

Toliver posted a farewell on Instagram on Monday afternoon in which she thanked her teammates, the Mystics coaching staff, Mystics owner Ted Leonsis, and the DC fans for their support. (Many of those fans commented on her post, including one especially sad fan: “OMG 2020 hasn’t started right @ all.”)

Her former Mystics teammate Elena Delle Donne reacted to the news in an Instagram story, calling Toliver “forever a sister”:

With Thibault’s plan to keep the 2019 team together no longer in the cards, he could go in a few directions. Thibault told Winsidr last week that he had reached verbal agreements with Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman, the team’s top remaining free agents. Those deals are expected to be completed soon, likely at the WNBA maximum salary of $215,000 each. (Players who re-sign with their 2019 teams can earn up to $215,000 and players signing with new teams can earn up to $185,000 under the new collective bargaining agreement.) Nine other players are under contract for 2020 at a total cost of $674,267, so if Delle Donne and Meesseman receive maximum contracts, the Mystics would have just under $196,000 available with the new $1.3 million salary cap.

Most obviously, Washington might look to sign a free agent to compensate for Toliver’s absence. Thibault told Wallace on Monday that he was hoping to find another player in free agency but gave no further details. On January 30, though, he had all but ruled out making a big trade or signing another player to a near-max contract, telling Winsidr:

“We don’t really have a ton of financial flexibility to go out and do a big deal. It would require some manipulation of our roster or trades, and I’m not in the mood right now to trade what’s [been] a fairly successful formula. To go and get another big piece would require giving up something, and I’m not in that mindset. I think that we may make one change somewhere in there, but … we’re not in the market for a max contract player.”

In these comments, Thibault made it clear that his vision for the team goes beyond 2020. Five players, including starters Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders, will be free agents in 2021, and Thibault told Wallace that one of his priorities is, “long-term, keeping the rest of our core together.” With raises coming soon for the free-agents-to-be, the Mystics can’t afford to sign and do not seem interested in trading for a star player to directly replace Toliver. Instead, Thibault is likely looking for an affordable veteran player who can play both guard positions and is a good 3-point shooter.

If Thibault can’t sign such a player or simply changes course, he could also stand pat after re-signing Delle Donne and Meesseman. The final roster spot could then go to the No. 12 pick in the 2020 Draft or to a training camp invitee. After all, the Mystics went 10-1 in games Toliver missed last year, so there is no need to push the panic button. In this scenario, Thibault would likely target a similar player as the hypothetical free agent above: someone who can play both guard positions and is a good 3-point shooter. Kim Mestdagh, the 12th woman on last year’s roster and a current free agent, fits that profile; so does Rebecca Greenwell, a 2018 draft pick who recently told me that she is feeling “great” in her recovery from knee surgery.

The Mystics will surely miss plenty of things about Kristi Toliver, including her on-court performance and leadership, her endearing pregame ritual with Cloud, and the hashtag #ToliverThings that chronicled many 3-pointers. However, the sky is not falling for the defending champions. They still have a lot of weapons, starting with last season’s WNBA MVP in Delle Donne and WNBA Finals MVP in Meesseman, and they are still looking to add talent before training camp starts.

For sad Mystics fans, here are two final #ToliverThings to smile about. First, she is keeping her offseason job with the Washington Wizards, according to Wallace. And second, Toliver will be back at the Entertainment and Sports Arena for the very first game of the 2020 season, when the Mystics host the Sparks on May 16.

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